Illinois marijuana dispensaries on a hiring binge as access expands

Marijuana plant (File photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

CHICAGO (AP) -- Illinois is about to roll out a pilot program that will offer patients access to medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids, and medical cannabis dispensaries across the state are getting ready.

Dispensaries are extending hours and hiring additional workers for the expected increased demand in medical marijuana once the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program launches at the end of January, The Chicago Tribune reported. The Illinois Department of Public Health's program will allow medical marijuana to be used in place of prescription painkillers.

Mission South Shore medical marijuana dispensary has increased parking space and its workforce over the past six months in preparation for the program, said Rick Armstrong, the dispensary's general manager.

"We want to be prepared if one patient comes in the door or 100 patients," he said. "We want to be there, ready to go."

Then-Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the pilot program into law in August. Patients previously had to have one of about 40 conditions, such as cancer or AIDS, to qualify for medical cannabis.

To qualify for the pilot program, patients must be certified by a doctor. Patients can then register for the program at a dispensary or the local health department for a $10 fee. People who qualify for the program must visit a doctor every 90 days in order to renew the certification.

Staff at Green Thumb Industries, a Chicago-based medical marijuana provider, are training to learn how to patients safely transition from opioids to medical cannabis, said Jennifer Dooley, the company's chief strategy officer. 

"You can't just stop cold turkey, especially transitioning from opioids to cannabis," Dooley said, noting that staff will collaborate with patients to slowly reduce their opioid use.